Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

This Country Is Not So Special

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

This Country Is Not So Special

Article excerpt

Linda Colley demolishes the historical myths about Britain, the US and Europe

Five years ago, in 1994, Britain had two causes for celebration and remembrance. One was the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings, and we all recall the scale of the commemoration and the sponsorship it received from monarch, ministers and media alike. The second cause for celebration was, or should have been, the opening of the Channel Tunnel, a permanent highway to Continental Europe. Yet in Britain at least, this was a notably low-key event. We discussed the safety of the tunnel, the potential damage to property values in Kent, the effect on our French holidays, the quality of the train service. It was treated, in short, as a late 20th-century amenity, not as an epic event.

How strange, and how sad! The idea of a Channel Tunnel has a long history: Brunel lobbied for it, Queen Victoria backed it, Winston Churchill, between the wars, advocated it as a "notable symbol in the advance of human civilisation". And the tunnel is one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th century. Yet in 1994 we did not feel able properly to celebrate this, thus doing violence both to our history and to our present achievements. We chose to focus not on our present, not on our future, and not on our long and complicated history, but on D-Day and our comparatively recent past.

I do not minimise the significance of the second world war or Britain's role in it. But, as Hugo Young has suggested, the notion that this was our finest hour has cast something of a paralysing spell, in a way that the author of that phrase would never have wanted. By remembering a certain version of the war too well, we tend to neglect and misperceive our longer history, and so miss out on possibilities for the present and the future.

Britain is a set of islands on the western periphery of Europe. Nonetheless, as a major British politician once observed, "our links to . . . the Continent of Europe have been the dominant factor in our history". Who said this? Margaret Thatcher in Bruges in 1988. She was right. For almost four centuries, much of what is now Britain was governed from Rome. From 1066 to the 16th century, kings of England were also kings of parts of France. At the end of the 17th century, we were ruled by a Dutch monarch. From 1714 to 1837, German kings ruled over us in tandem with their home state of Hanover. The impact of all this went far beyond politics into the very texture of our society. The Romans and the Norman French contributed to the vocabulary we still use today. Dutch expertise helped to construct the City and the stock exchange. Until recently, the British royal family was overwhelmingly German in blood and often in preferred language as well.

But surely, you might say, the determining factor in Britain' s history is that it is an island, cut off from the Continent by the sea. On some occasions, this was indeed so; for certain minds, it is always so. But the sea is a highway as well as a barrier. Before the railways, transport by water was much faster than transport by land. The most important impact of the sea on parts of Britain was not that it cut them off from the rest of Europe, but rather that it allowed regular and substantial contacts with it. Just think of the close maritime, trading and cultural links between the Orkneys and Shetlands on the one hand and Scandinavia on the other, or between East Anglia and the Dutch. Even now, Norwich has no direct air link with London, but it has one with Amsterdam.

Historically, it makes little sense to generalise about "Britain" and "Europe" as though they are or ever were monoliths. Over the centuries, different parts of what is now Britain had different relations with different parts of the rest of Europe - and different relations with each other, too. Wales was only incorporated and given representation at Westminster in the 16th century. Scotland had its own parliament before 1707, which it regains in 1999. …

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